Paul Rusesabagina, the polarising hero of the hit movie “Hotel Rwanda,” admitted to a Kigali court on Friday that he had helped form an armed group but denied any role in its crimes.
Rusesabagina is famed for his depiction by Don Cheadle in the 2004 film in which a moderate Hutu is shown as saving hundreds of lives at a luxury hotel during the 1994 genocide, which left some 800,000, mostly Tutsi, dead.
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However, a more complex image has emerged of the staunch government critic since he appeared in Kigali under arrest in mysterious circumstances last month, after years living in exile in Belgium and the United States.
Rusesabagina admitted Friday to helping form the National Liberation Front (FLN), which he has previously said sought to “liberate” Rwanda from the authoritarian government of Paul Kagame.
Kagame has been in power since 1994 and is often accused by critics of crushing opposition and ruling through fear.
However the 66-year-old, who appeared in court clad in Rwanda’s pink prison outfit and a pink mask, said the aim was not to sow terror.
“We formed the FLN as an armed wing, not as a terrorist group as the prosecution keeps saying. The aim was to draw the government to the attention of the plight of refugees. I do not deny that the FLN committed crimes but my role was diplomacy,” he said in court Friday.
He said the FLN was the armed wing of his political party, the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD), which he formed in 2017.
Rusesabagina is being tried on 13 charges including terrorism, financing and founding militant groups, murder, arson and conspiracy to involve children in armed groups.
His court appearance was to appeal a ruling denying him bail, and a decision was set for October 2.
Rusesabagina’s daughter Carine Kanimba wrote on Twitter that her family was “saddened and shocked by the images of our father’s shaved head and draped in pink prisoner’s clothes.
“Although our morale is low, we will not give up until he is back home.”
Rusesabagina’s family said he would never have willingly returned to Rwanda, and the details of his arrest are still murky.
In an interview with The New York Times, Rusesabagina, speaking with Rwandan officials in the room, said he boarded a private jet in Dubai which he thought was taking him to Burundi, but landed in Kigali instead.
His family says Rusesabagina has not been allowed to consult with lawyers of his choosing.
– A polarising hero –
In the years after the genocide, Rusesabagina — a Hutu — became increasingly critical of Kagame’s government, accusing his ruling party of authoritarianism and anti-Hutu sentiment.
Rusesabagina left Rwanda in 1996 along with other moderates who believed the space for political opposition was fast shrinking.
The release of the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” thrust him into the global spotlight, giving him a greater platform for his criticism of Kagame’s government.
Kagame is championed abroad for turning the country around.
However critics such as Rusesabagina accuse his government of authoritarianism, ruling through fear and crushing the opposition. Several critics of his regime have been assassinated abroad.
As Rusesabagina grew more critical, his image at home worsened as the regime attacked his character.
Detractors claimed he embellished his heroics, while some survivors groups accused him of profiting from their misery.
Rusesabagina formed his groups in the wake of the 2017 election, in which the 62-year-old Kagame won a third term, after a constitutional amendment allowed him to run again and potentially stay in office for another two decades.
In a 2018 video expressing support for the FLN, Rusesabagina said: “The time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda, as all political means have been tried and failed.”
The FLN claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Nyungwe, a forested area near the Burundi border which is popular among tourists coming to see endangered mountain gorillas.
The attacks prompted France, Germany, Canada and Australia to advise their nationals against travel to the area.
In April 2019, Rwandan authorities arrested the commander of the FLN, Callixte Nsabimana, who had previously claimed responsibility on social media for attacks including setting fire to a passenger bus in 2018, leaving two dead and many injured.
However in court, Nsabimana tried to distance himself from the killing of civilians.
“When we attacked the Nyungwe area, we had given FLN specific orders that whatever operation they launch, it should be about destroying bridges, ambush military vehicles, attack government offices as well as police and military camps. We didn’t expect them to attack civilians,” Nsabimana said in court last year.